OAKLAND (AP) – As organized labor faces declining membership, one of the country’s most storied unions is looking to a new growth industry: marijuana.

The Teamsters added nearly 40 new members earlier this month by organizing the country’s first group of unionized marijuana growers. Such an arrangement is likely only possible in California, which has the nation’s loosest medical marijuana laws.

But it’s still unclear how the Teamsters will safeguard the rights of members who do work that’s considered a federal crime.

“I didn’t have this planned out when I became a Teamster 34 years ago, to organize marijuana workers,” said Lou Marchetti, who acted as a liaison between the growers and Oakland-based Teamsters Local 70. “This is a whole new ballgame.”

The new members work as gardeners, trimmers and cloners for Marjyn Investments LLC, an Oakland business that contracts with medical marijuana patients to grow their pot for them.

Their newly negotiated two-year contract provides them with a pension, paid vacation and health insurance. Their current wages of $18 per hour will increase to $25.75 an hour within 15 months, according to the union.

Historically, the Teamsters are no strangers to entanglements with federal law enforcement, from the infiltration of the union by organized crime to the disappearance of union leader Jimmy Hoffa. If the federal government decided to crack down on Marjyn, Marchetti said the union was still figuring out how it might intervene.

Growing marijuana outdoors is not hard – the nickname “weed” is well-earned. Indoor growing operations require more know-how and more work. But the most labor-intensive part of the process comes at harvest time, when growers rely on small armies of trimmers to clip the plant’s resin-rich buds.

The work can be difficult and the hours long – and trimmers cannot count on federal labor regulations to protect them while doing work banned under federal law.

Michael Leong, assistant regional director for the Oakland office of the National Labor Relations Board, said he did not know of any case in which the federal government had been asked to mediate a dispute involving a business that was blatantly illegal under federal law.

He also said it wasn’t clear if the new Teamsters would count as farmworkers, which would put them outside the NLRB’s domain.

Michael Lee, general counsel for the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board, said the growers probably would qualify as agricultural workers. Any conflict between workers and the union would likely fall under his board’s jurisdiction, but contract disputes between workers and management would have to be decided in state court.

Even within the state, marijuana cultivation has remained in the shadows as retail dispensaries have flourished because California’s medical marijuana law provides no clear rules for growing the plant.

The Oakland City Council sought to change that dynamic in July by making the city the nation’s first to authorize industrial pot cultivation. More than 260 potential applicants have expressed interest in competing later this year for four permits for large-scale growing operations, said Arturo Sanchez, an assistant to the Oakland city administrator who will ultimately issue the permits.

Union membership will not be a requirement for receiving a permit, but labor standards are one of many factors that will be considered. The union organizing effort and contract negotiations went smoothly at Marjyn, which hopes to win one of the permits.

“There was no strife between employees and management at all,” said a Marjyn worker who would only identify himself as Rudy L. because he worried about his personal security if it became known that he grew marijuana for a living. He said he was not worried about getting arrested because he believed Marjyn was operating in compliance with state law, though the threat of a federal crackdown is never far from anyone’s mind.

About 100 workers in Oakland’s retail medical marijuana dispensaries joined the United Food and Commercial Workers in May. The Teamsters have never tried to organize dispensary workers, because retail has never been an industry in which they have been traditionally involved, Marchetti said.

The Teamsters have long vied with the United Farm Workers and other unions to represent agricultural workers. So far, no other unions have competed with the Teamsters for the membership of medical marijuana growers.

Marchetti said the union would not have gotten involved with the growers if it didn’t believe the business was legitimate under state law.

“The Teamsters would never organize an illegal business,” Marchetti said.

(© 2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

Comments (10)
  1. redrazor says:

    Just what this State needs; Crooks organizing Criminals! What a world we live in these days. When future robberies, or other invasions of the “pot farms” happens; I guess we’ll have to separate the criminal thugs from the Union Thugs.

    1. 5thcav says:

      It sounds like the federal government….lol.

    2. joe says:


      Don’t worry about the teamsters, the bigger fish are the bankers, wall street, and the politicians. These crooks all put their hands in our pockets and no one went to jail

  2. Kathleen B says:

    The Teamsters is the wrong union for gardeners, cloners & trimmers. This is agricultural. The Teamsters should focus on the distribution system of transporting from gardens to dispensaries.
    On the other hand, there’s not a lot of love for teamsters these days. We’re still wanting to know who did in Hoffa.

  3. Retired Teamster says:

    The Teamster are neither crooks nor thugs. They are the largest union in the US that holds actual elections to choose their leaders and represent many classes of workers, includinf police in the bay area.

  4. joe says:

    People People this is America the land of the free to create capital.

    This type of capital is very decentralized which is why its difficult for few to control. Wealth is distributed through all the classes.

  5. Retired Teamster says:

    Having counciled co-workers with marijuana issues, I have to question the wisdom of making it any easier to obtain what has become a very powerful drug. I think it is very likely the voters will decriminalize it entirely in Nov.

    1. redrazor says:

      Temo: I’m still a little leery of the Teamsters Union; but I do agree with your assessment of the Marijuana dangers. I too have spent much time counseling and observing the devastating effects of this under estimated scourge. Keep up the good work.

  6. SGT Ted says:

    why would anyone want to enrich union thugs at the expense of their own paycheck and that of patients? 18 bucks an hour to garden is easy money. This is just fat cat unioins looking for more cash.